Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand!
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Give me my fountain pen and massive Mauna Loa for my inkstand, and I'll write you a tome that dwarfs even Moby Dick. Long Mountain she's called in Hawaiian tongue, and down the long, sloping flank of Mauna Loa, Kilauea fumes in her sunken pit. At night Halema'uma'u Crater glows red. The lava lake has risen. Pele is home.

The lava lake in Halema'uma'u Crater.

"I suppose no man ever saw Niagara for the first time without feeling disappointed. I suppose no man ever saw it the fifth time without wondering how he could ever have been so blind and stupid as to find any excuse for disappointment in the first place. I suppose that any one of nature's most celebrated wonders will always look rather insignificant to a visitor at first, but on a better acquaintance will swell and stretch out and spread abroad, until it finally grows clear beyond his grasp - becomes too stupendous for his comprehension...
"I was disappointed when I saw the great volcano of Kilauea (Ke-low way-ah) to-day for the first time. It is a comfort to me to know that I fully expected to be disappointed, how ever, and so, in one sense at least, I was not disappointed."
- Mark Twain, The Sacramento Daily Union, November 16, 1866

To be fair to Mark Twain, at distant glance the caldera really does look like nothing more than a hole in the ground, and in terms of actively erupting volcanoes a distant glance will be the closest look you'll get.

Halema'uma'u Crater, smoking and shedding vog (aka air pollution composed of sulfur dioxide and other gases and particles that react with oxygen and moisture in the presence of sunlight.) Vog is a portmanteau of "volcanic," "smog" and "fog" (and for the record my blog editor desperately keeps trying to autocorrect it to "fog").

What's really difficult to grasp about Kilauea is its scale. It's incomprehensible, like trying to visualize one million, or one billion, or one sextillion. We can't see it because we have no meaningful scale - nothing familiar with which to compare it, or even anything visible in the same view to compare. Without any scale, it's simply a barren field, a raised mound, and a hole in the ground. But even if we can't really see it, the volcanoes of Big Island are huge.

"As we "raised'' the summit of the mountain and began to canter along the edge of the crater, I heard Brown exclaim, "There's smoke, by George!" (poor infant - as if it were the most surprising thing in the world to see smoke issuing from a volcano), and I turned my head in the opposite direction and began to crowd my imagination down. When I thought I had got it reduced to about the proper degree, I resolutely faced about and came to a dead halt. "Disappointed, anyhow!" I said to myself "Only a considerable hole in the ground - nothing to Haleakala - a wide, level, black plain in the bottom of it, and a few little sputtering jets of fire occupying a place about as large as an ordinary potato-patch, up in one corner - no smoke to amount to any thing. And these 'tremendous' perpendicular walls they talk about, that inclose the crater! they don't amount to a great deal, either; it is a large cellar - nothing more - and precious little fire in it, too." So I soliloquized. But as I gazed, the "cellar" insensibly grew. I was glad of that, albeit I expected it. I am passably good at judging of heights and distances, and I fell to measuring the diameter of the crater. After considerable deliberation I was obliged to confess that it was rather over three miles, though it was hard to believe it at first. It was growing on me, and tolerably fast. And when I came to guess at the clean, solid, perpendicular walls that fenced in the basin, I had to acknowledge that they were from 600 to 800 feet high, and in one or two places even a thousand, though at a careless glance they did not seem more than two or three hundred. The reason the walls looked so low is because the basin inclosed is so large. The place looked a little larger and a little deeper every five minutes, by the watch. And still it was unquestionably small; there was no getting around that. About this time I saw an object which helped to increase the size of the crater. It was a house perched on the extreme edge of the wall, at the far end of the basin, two miles and a half away; it looked like a martin box under the eaves of a cathedral! That wall appeared immensely higher after that than it did before."
- Mark Twain, The Sacramento Daily Union, November 16, 1866
"Location Hawaii Volcanoes" (4)

"Location Hawaii Volcanoes" (4)

The first step towards understanding the size of the volcanoes on Big Island is understanding the size of the whole island. Big Island, as its name suggests, is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, it's larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, but only has about 13% of Hawaii's population. (3) For a sense of scale, Big Island is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and is made of five distinct shield volcanoes: Kohala, the oldest, is now extinct; Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world, is dormant; Hualalai, while smaller and currently not erupting, is active; Mauna Loa, the largest mountain in the world by volume and mass, is active; and Kilauea, perhaps the most active volcano in the world, has been actively erupting since 1983.

The behemoths Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea dominate the horizon of Big Island, with Mauna Kea frequently donning a white cap of snow. Mauna Kea means "White Mountain," and with nearby Mauna Loa the Big Island experiences a dramatic rain shadow due to orographic lift. Trade winds blowing from the northeast of the island carry moisture, and as these winds are forced up and over the mountains the winds and moisture cool. This then results in condensation and precipitation on the windward side of the mountain. For this reason, the eastern side of the island is covered in rainforest, and the western side of the island is mostly arid scrub. With the tallest mountain and largest mountain on Earth, the rain shadow is on Big Island is striking. (5)

Mauna Loa. It may not look like much except for a slight rise in the horizon against a sunset, but that's only because the mountain is SO BIG. That whole thing is mountain, and it just keeps going.

But you may be thinking right now, "tallest mountain on Earth?" Really, Liz? What about Mount Everest? Technically Everest is the HIGHEST mountain. Thanks to the Tibetan Plateau, Everest's base is at an insane 14,800 feet above sea level, which is actually higher than Mauna Kea's peak at 13,796 feet. From there Everest rises 15,260 feet from the lowest point of its base. However, Mauna Kea's base is in the ocean. DEEP in the ocean. As in 18,000 feet below sea level. There's actually a dip in the ocean floor around the island known as the Hawaiian Trough or the Hawaiian Deep because the weight of the island landmass presses down on the ocean floor and downwarps it. So with the depression in the ocean floor versus the elevated Tibetan Plateau, Mauna Kea wins the title of tallest mountain (as long as we're not counting mountain roots, which is a whole other conversation and a little beyond my elementary knowledge of geology).

But what is it actually like to be near Kilauea as it erupts? It's mesmerizing. I watched the lava bubble for hours and could have stayed there for many hours more as the sun sank and the sky darkened. In the darkness the pit emitted a fiery glow. Veins on the surface of the lake glowed red as the crusty veneer of cooler lava separated and subducted.

Legend says that Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and lava, lives in the crater. Myths tell of her tempestuous nature: how the stomping of her feet cause the earth to quake and how she can dredge the earth and churn lava with her pa'oa, or magical digging stick. There are stories of how she destroys land or makes land, and stories of her burning scorned lovers and old flames in lava. Pele certainly hasn't been forgotten here. As the evening wore on, islanders flocked to the crater overlook at Jagger Museum to see the lava glow under the stars. Someone had left leis on the bare branches of an 'ohi'a lehua tree, while others gathered with warm coats, binoculars, cameras, and even sleeping bags to watch Pele's nighttime spectacle. 

Leis left for Pele.

Early arrivers for viewing the crater after dark.

Early arrivers for viewing the crater after dark.

Here was room for the imagination to work! You could imagine those lights the width of a continent away - and that hidden under the intervening darkness were hills, and winding rivers, and weary wastes of plain and desert - and even then the tremendous vista stretched on, and on, and on! - to the fires and far beyond! You could not compass it - it was the idea, of eternity made tangible - and the longest end of it made visible to the naked eye!
— Mark Twain, The Sacramento Daily Union, November 16, 1866

A view of the Jagger Museum and in the distance columns of smoke rising from the crater.

The crowd gathers impatiently. On the overlook it was standing room only as spectators pressed together.

The crowd gathers impatiently. On the overlook it was standing room only as spectators pressed together.

With each fiery plume rising from the lava lake, it seemed my fascination and imagination grew. The crowd gasped when a gas bubble burst with a crack and when the lava fountains at the edge of the lake flared. Pele's abode was truly mesmerizing, and is a sight that I will not soon forget.


  1. Melville, Herman. Moby Dick.
  2. Twain, Mark. "The Sacramento Daily Union, November 16, 1866"
  3. Calculations based on World Population Review data:
  4. "Location Hawaii Volcanoes" by Mapmaunaloa.png: Hawaii Volcano Observatory, USGSderivative work: Richardprins (talk) - Mapmaunaloa.png. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -


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